Wright State coach Scott Nagy has wanted to groom Malachi Smith to be Cole Gentry’s back-up at point guard — an important role these days since no team can expect its starters to go 40 minutes. And Nagy figured last week’s game with Northwestern Ohio would be an ideal time to give the freshman a prolonged audition.
But Smith didn’t make it easy on his coach. He subbed in with 12:57 left in the first half but saw only 53 seconds of action before being yanked for a defensive lapse.
“He gave up a straight-line drive for a layup,” Nagy said. “But I thought better about it and put him back in because he needs the playing time. I think he’s going to be a pretty important part of this before we’re done.”
Returning with 11:22 left in the half, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Smith ended up playing a season-high 24 minutes and had a sparkling stat line in the 91-52 win of nine points, eight rebounds, four assists and no turnovers.
He’s got the size to get to spots against defenses that smaller players can’t. And he’s got a strong enough floor game to direct an offense.
“He’s probably not just a straight ‘one man’ where he’s a point guard all the time,” Nagy said. “But on our team, he’s the second-best ball-handler for sure.
“We’re going to get pressured by people, and we have to play guys who can handle the ball really well. He needs some minutes. Plus, we don’t want to play Cole 38 minutes a game. It’s too hard on Cole.”
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Known for his unselfishness in high school, Smith led Belleville (Ill.) West to a state title while averaging 15.5 points as a senior. He’s the grandson of Larry Knight, who had a short stint in the NBA but was a first-round draft pick for the Utah Jazz in 1979 after starring at Loyola-Chicago.
He had 10 points in 20 minutes in a 96-73 season-opening win against Western Carolina, but he had tallied only seven total points after that before his breakout game against Northwestern Ohio.
Smith believes his practice duels with Gentry — a 5-10 junior who averages 13.2 points and is one of the Horizon League leaders in assists at 4.1 per game — has been good for his development.
“Cole is a great point guard, and I try to learn from him every day,” he said. “The coaches are always making sure I’m ready because you never know what moment they’ll need me to back him up.
“Guarding him in practice helps me for the games because there’s not a lot of point guards like Cole.”
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If Smith continues to emerge, the Raiders will feel much better about their depth. Senior center Parker Ernsthausen and freshman guard Skyelar Potter have established themselves as reliable reserves, but Nagy has sensed his team wilting against tougher foes because of a limited rotation.
They’ve lost five straight games against Division-I opponents. And after dropping a 65-62 decision to Miami at home on Dec. 5, Nagy said: “They’re playing nine guys double-figure minutes, and we’re playing seven. That makes a difference.”
Smith probably hasn’t quite shown he’s ready for starter-type minutes, but his teammates are confident he can at least handle spot duty.
“He’s going to be a really good player, obviously,” Gentry said. “It’s tough (on freshmen) because everybody kind of makes the transition at different times. But I think he’s doing a great job, and everybody on the team would say the same thing.”
Gentry likened him to senior guard Mark Hughes, who made the Horizon League’s all-defensive team last season.
“He’s right there with Mark on defense. He’s a really good defender,” Gentry said. “He’s going to do a lot of good things for us.”